The art gods smiled on me in Breckenridge, CO. The travel gods, too. A performance by Gregg Deal “Punk Pan-Indian Romantic Comedy” and exhibition of his work happened to be in town on April 1, 2022 while I was there for my annual winter visit. My wife skis.
Deal performed a candid, personal, occasionally painful, mostly funny, spoken word journey through his life as disaffected youth, Native artist and music lover. Punk music. Deal took the mic wearing a plain black jacket adorned with small Black Flag shoulder patch and a huge Dead Kennedys patch on the back.
Deal first heard Black Flag as a teen, recalling in his performance, “All that sadness and all that isolation flipped, I might even say it saved my life.”
My childhood was largely idyllic. I didn’t turn on to punk music until my 20s, dabbling, becoming more and more interested in the genre throughout my 30s. But for Deal, like millions of other kids, “Punk music made sense to me, it was angry… it expressed the way I felt.”
Deal was raised by a strict, white, seriously religious, former hippy, music-loving father whom he feared and a Paiute mother. He traces his artistic ability back to his father, a photographer, but the pair had a strained relationship until his father’s final years battling cancer.
Deal was kicked out of the house and put out on his own at 18 for getting a tattoo. Between the ages of 17 and 24, he moved 25 times. That lack of permanence influenced his world view for decades to follow, the 47-year-old artist only recently allowing himself to accumulate the creature comforts – a turntable and records – most Americans have long been accumulating at that age.
If my memory servers, I moved 13 times between leaving home for college at 18 and moving to my current home in Fernandina Beach, FL at 36. My moves across the country from Wisconsin to Alabama to Oregon to Atlanta to Connecticut and back to Atlanta had less to do with desperation and more with seeking professional opportunity. I came to enjoy it. Some of the wanderlust I have now was fostered during that vagabond period, enjoying the discovery of new places.
Artists, either through desperation, schooling, residencies or internships are among the most well-traveled and worldly people as a group I’ve ever run across. It’s one of the reasons I like them so much. They’ve seen and experienced more of the world than most people dream of.
Deal’s father always challenged his son for identifying as a “Native” artist. Why didn’t he align with his father’s whiteness?
“My identity has been based on how I’ve been treated… (I was) treated as a Native – good, bad or indifferent,” Deal explained during the performance, “Punk Pan-Indian Romantic Comedy.”
Deal began to understand he was different on some level, that he was Native, when he was called a “prairie nig33&” in grade school.
Throughout the show, Deal opined on how much of a person’s perception is determined by other people, the ongoing struggle to tackle his identity, the duality of Native American people. Particularly in a case like his.
He’s only 50% Native. He doesn’t look Native, not as much as he did as a boy and young man, anyway. He doesn’t speak his Native language. He’s entirely modern.
Deal acknowledges these realities and how they contrast contemporary stereotypes of Indigenous people – a label the artist objects to.
Deal rejects the terms “Native American” or “Indigenous” as no less inaccurate descriptors or colonial in origin when describing the continent’s original inhabitants than the loaded and provocative “Indian,” which he freely tosses into conversation, fully recognizing its effect.
When forced to label himself, Deal chooses “numu,” which means “the people” in Paiute; Deal is a member of the Pyramid Lake Piaute Tribe.
Watch Gregg Deal perform “Punk Pan-Indian Romantic Comedy” in its entirety from a 2020 show here:
Deal’s artmaking encompasses painting, murals, graphic design, ready mades, sculpture, performance, spoken word and filmmaking. His paintings and graphic works highlight “Roots Radical,” the exhibition of his artwork at the gallery in Breckenridge’s Old Masonic Hall on Main Street through May 8, 2022.
“It’s about representation, it’s about taking up space, it’s about redefining ourselves (as Native people),” Deal says of his work. “It’s about being contemporary too, basket patterns in neon signs.”
Basket patterns in paintings as well. Deal incorporates traditional basket patterns and symbols in opulently impastoed paintings – thick, chunky, gobs of paint, pig-tailed swirls poking nearly an inch off the canvas. Brilliantly colored. Simple. Traditional meets contemporary.
Punk music enters his artwork with song lyric “word bubbles” over images from racist comic books of the 1940s in which he’s repositioned the “Indians” as winners, as heroes. The degree to which the Punk rock song lyrics from the 1970s and 1980s mirror the historic and ongoing frustration, angst and rage expressed by Native Americans regarding their treatment by the dominant white culture and government is astounding.
Gregg Deal “Punk Pan-Indian Romantic Comedy” closed with a live performance music video by his band the Dead Pioneers. “Bad Indian” riotously, defiantly, details all the ways in which Deal is a bad Indian, like his use of the word “Indian.”